SAN FRANCISCO — Andy Sullivan must have sensed doom as he stood off to the side of the 17th green, waiting for Patrick Reed to hit his nine-foot par putt. Sullivan, a relatively obscure, 27-year-old Englishman, had outplayed Reed tee to green all day, but now, with Reed trying to salvage par to win the hole and the match, 2 and 1, Sullivan took off his cap as if preparing to shake hands, as if it was already over.
He was right.
After hitting just seven of 13 fairways and nine of 17 greens, Reed drained the putt for one final par save to put Sullivan away 2 and 1 in the opening round of the WGC-Cadillac Match Play at TPC Harding Park.
“I needed a little bit of help today,” Reed said.
Yes he did. It was that kind of day at the WGC-Cadillac Match Play, where Reed’s win, so ugly it was beautiful, typified the overall level of play.
“I need to figure out the ball-striking,” added Reed, whom many had touted as a favorite here. “I can’t keep on trying to get up and down every hole for par. Through the first seven holes I think I only hit two greens, and you can’t do that around here and expect to go much further.”
Although Reed carried a 15 seed into the week, to Sullivan’s 57, you would have thought it was the other way around if you watched Sullivan pelt fairways (11 of 13) and greens (13 of 17) while Reed struggled. As for the result, you almost wouldn’t have believed it. Almost. The difference: Reed, who got up and down five of eight times, took just 24 putts. Sullivan had 30.
“Disappointing,” said Jamie Gough, who coaches Sullivan, a two-time winner on the European Tour already this season. “It was like having the ball 80 percent of the time in a football [soccer] game and losing one-nil.”
Reed will take on Englishman Danny Willett, a 3 and 2 winner over Ryan Moore despite making just two birdies, on Thursday.
Reed also had just two birdies and was 1 over through 17 holes.
“I didn’t take the chances when I had them,” said Sullivan, who missed short birdie putts at the eighth, ninth, 12th, 13th, 14th and 16th holes.
Among those watching their match was Major League Baseball umpire Ed Montague, who signed for a fan behind the ninth green.
While Reed has honed his match play skills at last year’s Ryder Cup and in college, leading Augusta State to two straight NCAA championships, Sullivan admitted he hadn’t played the format since the 2011 Walker Cup, where he went 2-2-0 and Great Britain & Ireland beat the U.S. 14-12.
Still, the Englishman said the result was less about his rust than it was about putting — Reed’s accuracy versus Sullivan’s agony.
“I just gave him too many opportunities,” said Sullivan, who went straight to the practice green with his caddie, coach and sports psychologist after the round. “If you’re holing putts like he was it keeps the momentum, and when you keep missing birdie putts it gets a bit disheartening.”
Said Gough, his coach, “If Andy plays like that tee to green the rest of his career he’ll be a world class player.”
Both players said the turning point of the match came on the par-4 10th hole. Reed was only 1 down and knew it could have been much, much worse, were it not for Sullivan’s spate of botched birdie chances. At the 10th, a par 4, Reed again missed the fairway right, his ball coming to rest on the cart path. After taking a drop, he missed the green short.
Sullivan, meanwhile, was playing the hole exactly as it was drawn out on the scorecard, splitting the fairway. But he seemed to make a mistake in firing at the back pin, and watched as his ball skipped past it into the rough.
“The wind just didn’t hit it like I thought it would,” Sullivan said.
Reed was visibly angry as his ball checked up a little more than 15 feet short of the pin — a poor chip shot for any pro. But then Sullivan fluffed his chip and also came up way short of the pin — 14 feet, 5 inches. Reed made his par putt, Sullivan missed, and, improbably, they were all square.
“Patrick Reed just has so much grind in him,” said one spectator, a Bay Area local who said he had bet on the American to win his pod and the entire tournament this week. “The guy is just a character, too. I love him.”
Sullivan made his worst swing of the day on 11, hooking his drive through the trees and in the hazard, allowing Reed to go 1 up with a par.
The winner would never trail again. Although he lost the 14th hole with a bogey to send the match back to all square, Reed nearly jarred his approach shot at the par-4 15th hole, his ball stopping within inches of the cup. The birdie was conceded, and he closed it out with a couple of pars.
It was just one match, just one day, and Reed’s refuse-to-lose heroics, his Seve-like scrambling, could all mean nothing by Sunday afternoon.
Or it could mean everything.